The First Forteans: The Light of Other Days

This is the first of a series of articles written by Bob Rickard.

In their original form they appeared in Fortean Times Magazine, these are revised and expanded versions.

THE UK’s FIRST FORTEANS

British Fortean lineage began in the 1920s, when Charles Fort was still alive and his books quite rare in these isles. Who were the first British Forteans? I go looking for our Fortean roots.

#1: The Light of Other Days

More than forty years have passed since I put together the first issue of what became Fortean Times. It seems appropriate to write
something in this issue to mark the occasion, but I soon realised that I knew very little about the British Forteans who came before me. The science-fiction writers Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Eric Frank Russell are well-known, but what about Sid Birchby and Harold Chibbett, whom I’d heard described as early Forteans? In good Fortean tradition, I did a bit of time-travelling to find out and this modest series will illuminate some forgotten stories and people who deserve to be better known.

The first British Forteans were forged during a period that spans World War Two, beginning when Charles Fort died in 1931 – when many of them were in their low teens – through to the 1950s. Against a backdrop of social change, political tension and intellectual excitement, our story is bound up with the origins of science-fiction fandom and the early interest in rocketry and spaceflight. [1]

Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner, in 1933

 

Certainly there were Forteans before this period. For example, sometime in the mid-1970s I met FT reader Judith Gee and her brother in London, who told me that they remembered going to ‘Speaker’s Corner’ at Hyde Park and hearing Charles Fort bemusing a small crowd with his ideas about space travel and other worlds. This would have been sometime between 1921-1924 when Fort was residing in Bloomsbury so he could trawl old newspapers in the British Library.

My treasured Ace set of Fort’s books

 

Since Fort’s first book – The Book of the Damned – appeared in 1919, he had an international following, but they tended to be individual readers, not organised in any kind of fannish network or with any dedicated periodicals. There was time for him to be known in the UK but his readers were few and far between. The only avenues for these nascent Forteans to pursue their interest in anomalous phenomena would have been through other fields, such as psychical research, spiritualism, astronomy or ancient history and the many magazines on popular science.

Fort did not become better known in the UK until the run-up to WW2 (well after his death in 1932). During this period, the rise of science-fiction fandom was bound up with the growing interest in rockets and their promise of spaceflight, all of which helped the Forteans to coalesce sufficiently to form their first community and periodicals.

But before we set out in earnest – and I beg your indulgence for this – I’d like to explain why this is also a poignant journey for me. I know the moment I became a Fortean; it was at the 1971 ‘Eastercon’ – the science-fiction convention held that April, at the Giffard Hotel in Worcester – organised by the writer Ken Bulmer and fanzine editor Peter Weston, both veterans of the genre. 

A young Bob Rickard on a river cruise during the 1971 Eastercon at Worcester. (LtoR) Pauline Dungate, Peter’s wife Eileen, BR, unknown, behind Pauline is Gigi, daughter of Anne McCaffrey. (Photo © Peter Weston)

 

In my teens, I read science-fiction (SF [2]) voraciously and treasured the monthly arrival of the American magazine Astounding – which my parents had arranged as a birthday present – and the more intermittent sendings of the Science-Fiction Book Club. I had heard of Charles Fort because Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, frequently mentioned him and some of his writers extrapolated Fort’s data into plots. I’d also read Eric Frank Russell’s Great World Mysteries (1957), which, while not great in retrospect, was my first encounter with actual discussion of Fort and his phenomena. It also made me realise that reports of anomalous events were still being published and launched my own habit of clipping newspapers.

A typical Anaolog (formerly Astounding) – its editor John W. Campbell shaking hands with writer H. Beam Piper, who drew of the works of Charles Fort for at least two of his stories; the best known being ‘He walked around the horses,’ about the vanishing of the British Napoleonic diplomat Benjamin Bathurst in 1809 – and EFR’s book on Fortean mysteries.

 

I first met Peter Weston in the late 1960s, during my days as a design student at Birmingham Art School – then newly relocated to the University of Birmingham at its Aston campus. I was soon drafted into helping produce his fanzine Speculation. [3] He encouraged me to attend that Eastercon, where I was amazed to find a set of the Ace paperbacks of Fort’s four books. Spending all my cash, I dived in for a few pages, became enthralled enough to read on, missing most of the con.

I emerged a bright-eyed Fortean, yet unaware that the threads of my destiny were being woven together with some curious conjunctions and coincidences. For example, at the same convention, I met James Blish – one of Astounding’s stable of writers, who had been writing SF since the late 1930s, much of it touching upon Fortean themes. I was thrilled when he who told me that he had once been the youngest member of Tiffany Thayer’s Fortean Society (founded in 1931).

SF and fanzine historians Peter Weston (L) and Rob Hansen (R) in 2011, outside the hall where the UK’s first SF convention was held 1937

 

The Ace books were sold to me by Derek ‘Bram’ Stokes, whose bookshop ‘Dark They Were and Golden Eyed’ – in St Anne’s Court, in London’s Soho – years later would become a mailing address and meeting place for the FT editorial group. Another coincidence: Richard Adams, for many years FT’s graphics consultant, had, unknown to me, also trained at Birmingham Art School, but had left the year before I joined. I only discovered this years later when I met him in London.

As I began researching this little history, I realised that I’d had many opportunities to ask people, like Peter Weston and others about the early Forteans, for many of them had direct links back to the days of the first and post-WW2 groups. But, in the 1970s, I was starting out and didn’t have the gumption to think about our intellectual genealogy. By the turn of the century, when it dawned on me that my links with the past were fading, many of the key people were no longer with us. In particular, Harold Chibbett, credited with the UK’s first Fortean publication, and Sid Birchby, who took over its distribution when Hal’s health failed. Both of these First Forteans were alumni of the first SF fan groups and I’ll deal with them later.

 

Derek Stokes and Diane Miller in their Soho bookshop ‘Dark They Were and Golden Eyed’, which specialised in SF and Fantasy and small press publications

 

Thank heavens, then, for the Internet archives of SF fandom, built up by modern fans such as David Langford, Rob Hansen, Greg Pickersgill and Peter Weston. They have devoted a huge amount of time to locating, scanning and cataloguing online the myriads of fanzines produced since the 1930s; and just as importantly, collected memoires (including convention reports) and photos of those times. Certainly my research would have very difficult without the resources they have created.

It is important to point out that the history of SF fandom is one of constant flux. While fans yearned for some kind of permanence in their many groups and governing organisations, it never happened, as groups fragmented or disbanded and re-formed, and memberships of larger organisations dwindled or administration became unmanageable. What they excelled at, however, were informal meetings, conventions and publishing anzines – prolifically – many of which ran for years forming a vital cultural. We won’t have the space in this series for the detailed accounts I’d hoped to provide. As much of it – in the early years, at least – concerns SF fandom, I recommend, to those interested, that they explore the archive links below.

 

The lineup at the UK’s very first SF convention, held in Leeds in January 1937. Left to right: Maurice Hanson, Arthur Clarke, Walter Gillings, Leslie Johnson, Ted Carnell, Eric Frank Russell, Herbert Warnes , George Airey, A. Miller, Douglas Mayer and Michael Rosenblum. (Photo © Harold Gottliffe; used with permission of family.)

 

One of the most important events, though, took place at the beginning of 1937, and it is worth mentioning here as a way of introducing some of our key players. This was the first ever science-fiction convention, anywhere, which led to the creation of Britain’s first ‘official’ SF organisation, the Science Fiction Association. The convention was organised by Doug Mayer’s group in Leeds, and held at the town’s Theosophical Hall, on Sunday, 3rd January 1937.

Some twenty SF fans attended – you can see from the line-up photo, just how young many of them were. They included Ted Carnell (who became an editor credited with launching the careers of such writers as Brian Aldiss, JG. Ballard, and Michael Moorcock); Arthur C. Clarke and Walter Gillings ( a writer and publisher who founded the very first fan group in 1930, in Ilford, London); Leslie Johnson (a writer and co-founder of the British Interplanetary Society) and Eric Frank Russell, who both travelled from Liverpool; and Maurice Hanson (founder of the Nuneaton group). Invitations had been sent to the broadcaster and SF enthusiast Professor Archibald Low, and the writers Prof. Olaf Stapledon and H.G.Wells; they could not attend but sent congratulatory letters in their place.

 

This image was made to records the historic first meeting of the London branch of the BIS, in October 1936, prior to the relocation of its administration from their Liverpool HQ. Among those present were Ted Carnell (left) later to become BIS secretary and editor of Britain’s most important SF magazine, New Worlds, for 141 issues from 1946-1964. Seated next to Carnell is 19 year-old Arthur C. Clarke, at this time newly arrived in London from Devon to work as an auditor for HM Exchequer. Looking over Clarke’s shoulder is Walter Gillings, who, a few months later would launch Britain’s first SF magazine, Tales of Wonder, which ran until 1942. Prominently front right is Prof. Archibald Low, who had by this time already written his first SF novel, Adrift in the Stratosphere Prof Low – later elected president of the BIS, in whose Piccadilly office this was taken – is patched in (obscuring who?) and Ted Carnell was being masked for a portrait. . The picture appears to have been discarded while being processed for printing. © E. John Carnell, courtesy of Peter Weston

 

I shall be dealing with some of these people in subsequent instalments, which will cover the synergy between the SF fans and the rocketry groups, including the founding of the British Interplanetary Society; the many SF fans who became pacifists and conscientious objectors during WW2; what happened to the many fans who were called up to National Service; the role of Harold Chibbett who pioneered investigations and a newsletter system from which the first Fortean publication evolved; Fortean pioneers of alternative archaeology, psychical research, and cryptozoology among these early groups; the young Arthur C. Clarke; and an attempt at assessing the interest in Fortean phenomena over this period and the influences upon the generation that came after the war. The complex character of Eric Frank Russell, who wrote the first Fortean novel, Sinister Barrier in 1939, may need a couple of instalments as we account for his active promotion of Fort’s writings and the mystery of his feud with Aleister Crowley.

Next: #2: The Rocket Boys

REFERENCES

1 – For the best start on the fan history of science-fiction I recommend Rob Hansen’s massive Then archive http://www.ansible.co.uk/Then/

2 – I abhor the modern term ‘sci-fi’, and have no wish to perpetuate Hugo Gernsback’s clumsy coining ‘scientifiction’, much preferring the succinct ‘SF’  that I grew up with.

3 - An account of my early exploits in SF fandom can be found in Peter Weston’s
biography
With Stars in my Eyes: My Adventures in British Fandom (NESFA Press, Framingham, MA 01701; 2004).

*

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
– For their generous help, my thanks go to the SF fan historians and archivists who went out of their way to preserve the correspondence, images, fanzines and reports of the day. Chief among those are 

Rob Hansen’s FIAWOL archive - http://www.fiawol.org.uk/FanStuff/

Dave Langford for his Ansible archive - http://news.ansible.co.uk/

Greg Pickersgill for his Gostak archive - http://www.gostak.demon.co.uk/

Peter Weston for permission to use images from Mike Rosenblum in his collection, and for his Relapse -http://efanzines.com/Prolapse/

Philip Turner for permission to use images from Harry Turner’s Footnotes to Fandom archive -http://www.htspweb.co.uk/fandf/romart/het/footnotes.htm

Jill Godfrey for permission to use Harold Gottliffe’s photos from the above sites.

 

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